Credit W.H Allen &Co/ Watkins Media

Ten Years since Sheryl Sandberg told women to Lean In

By Jeevan Farthing

Lean in or Lean out? A decade on, Jeevan examines Sandberg’s infamous manifesto, and Dawn Foster’s counter to it.

Since Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In topped bestseller lists, we have entered the fourth wave of feminism. This has been, in part, defined by the #metoo movement which challenged sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as a renewed focus on intersectionality. Neither of these two issues are addressed by Lean In, and Sandberg’s supposedly feminist manifesto has largely failed on its own terms – the number of female tech leaders has fallen. Sandberg herself called it quits in June last year, taking an early retirement from the second most senior position at Meta. But what is her legacy? A career at Facebook, mired in controversy (think: Cambridge Analytica), and something of a fall from grace from feminist-in-chief. Michelle Obama said in 2018 that “It’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time,” while the late Dawn Foster produced a literary response of her own, titled Lean Out.

As its cover makes clear, Lean In intends to help women succeed in the workplace, and the way they are meant to do this is to overcome internal, self-imposed obstacles. While recognising that not all women want the lifestyle of a tech leader, Sandberg says it’s necessary that at least some do, as according to her, when there are more women in leadership roles, “conditions for all women will improve.” Lean Out, in contrast, argues that patriarchal capitalism is a more significant barrier to women’s liberation than internal factors. Writing in a specifically British context, Dawn Foster describes the ways in which our labour market and welfare system work against women, from the two-child limit to the bedroom tax. While Lean In functions as a self-help guide, Lean Out is a massive fuck you to David Cameron and George Osborne, while also suggesting direct action as a way in which women can liberate themselves both in and out of the workplace. To lean out is not a cop out – it’s far harder than leaning in in the context of the workplace, and involves losing pay to go on strike, or standing up in front of a tribunal to take your employer to court. But which text is more relevant and useful to women today, and which one is more feminist?

Social media is the neatest point of comparison. It is perfect for leaning out, connecting women across the world so that they can forge communities. It is also harmful to women, with studies showing platforms like Instagram to negatively affect the mental health of teenage girls. It is also the industry in which Sandberg has leaned in the most, rising up to Chief Operating Officer at Facebook (now Meta). However, it is doubtful that her position of power has made social media a safer space for women, or that women in leadership always exact positive change for women as a whole.

Is it cynical to suggest that Sandberg has prioritised the interests of Facebook over those of women? The only policy change Sandberg calls for is “affordable, high quality child care,” but she does not elaborate on who should provide it (low paid women, most likely), or whether this should be through legislation: the route which, Foster posits, has enabled Scandinavian countries to most successfully improve women’s rights. Sandberg also demands greater flexible working – an objectively helpful policy – but one that nonetheless cuts costs for businesses, with their workers often being more productive outside them (this is especially true of tech companies, whose offices tend to resemble early learning centres). Sandberg won’t, however, call for statutory maternity pay, or even mention trade unions, when the very basic tenet of liberal feminism – equal pay – is fought through strikes. Lean In, therefore, is less of a guide for how businesses can help women, than how women can help businesses.

Is Sandberg simply too fortunate, too rich to be a feminist? It is easy to overlook just how high her net worth has been, and this undoubtedly contributes to her refusal to see feminism as economic. In an interview, Foster claimed that “the only reason that Sandberg’s life is at all possible is because she employs low-paid women to clean her house, do the grocery shopping, look after her children, run her finances… and her advice wouldn’t help those women at all.” Indeed, her plea that women be more assertive in negotiating their salary feels futile when self-employed women (who Sandberg omits to mention) do not even have one.

Melissa Gira Grant describes Lean In as the “elite leading the slightly less elite”, and perhaps the biggest problem with Lean In isn’t even its contents, but its projection beyond the niche corporate career trajectory which Sandberg made for herself. Both Sandberg and Foster undertook upward social mobility in their own lives: Sandberg from a middle-class family to the super-rich, and Foster from a care experienced working-class child to a middle-class professional. But while Sandberg has only been discriminated against because of her gender, Foster also suffered from chronic illnesses, which contributed to her premature death (she was one chapter away from finishing a book on the housing crisis). What are sick women meant to lean into, being sick? The advent of long Covid makes Lean In all the more unhelpful to them – in fact, outside of pregnancy (surprise surprise), Sandberg does not mention women’s health at all.

Lean Out also berates Sandberg’s failure to mention women participating in civic or political life, socialising with friends, or even having time off. While Sandberg recognises that “not all women want careers. Not all women want children,” there is still a problem in presenting this as a binary, grimly stripping back women’s capabilities to their reproductive and capital services. It’s bioessentialism with a neoliberal garnish: all time is accounted for, and it’s either for work or for family. Are those who don’t engage in such toxic productivity lesser women? Are they not leaning in enough? Stay-at-home mums seem to be fine only if they are the yassified variant (best world book day costume, at the bake sale every week), while her emphasis that women do not need to send work emails on their hospital bed the day after they’ve given birth falls flat, because that is exactly what she did.

Sandberg is clearly a formidable woman and – at least until her retirement – seemed somehow incapable of burnout. She does not address it once in the book, presumably because she was not affected by it, yet it is the thread that ties together most of the women who have recently quit senior political positions: Jacinda Ardern, Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkel. She bangs on about the futility of trying to have it all, but her attempts to make herself vulnerable and admit to mistakes do not engage empathy because they are so acceptably small in number, or are mere near-misses (she was almost, but never quite, the woman who put her children to sleep in their school clothes). Sandberg’s meteoric rise is such a unique life experience that it deserves to be documented – perfect, even, for a memoir. But as all-encompassing advice, let alone feminist advice, it is bound to fail, because her lifestyle cannot be projected as remotely attainable for other women.

In some ways it’s a shame. Sandberg is genuinely perceptive in identifying problems, and admits that merit can be manipulated to justify discrimination. Lean In also makes radical arguments, that “men should come to the kitchen table,” because “in a truly equal world men would run half our homes.” Sandberg also recognises domestic work as work (women have “two full time jobs”), which is quintessentially feminist. But these are arguments that have been made already, hence the only unique selling point of the book, and how it could turn itself into a brand, is its insistence on leaning in.


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